Top 5 Reasons Compensation is Hurting You

June 27, 2021

I’m Cassandra.
Movement strategist and expert, helping to change the way we think about movement so we can enjoy healthy, pain-free bodies.
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You have probably heard the term “compensation” before, and you likely even know what it means (that part of your body is picking up the slack caused by another part of your body). But do you know why it’s such a problem? Why you don’t want to let it continue?

Let’s take a look at the five biggest reasons compensations need to be eliminated.

1) They consume much more of your energy.

Do you constantly feel tired and worn out? The compensating mechanisms in your body are likely playing a role. See, your body always looks for ways to use the least amount of energy to carry out it’s functions. When it comes to muscles, saving energy means using the right muscle to create its associated movement. When that muscle no longer can, other muscles have to step up (cue compensation), but those muscles are not nearly as adept at creating the movement as the original muscle was. Meaning? It takes significantly more energy to try to recreate that movement using alternate muscles instead. Why? Simply because of the sheer number of muscle fibers it has to recruit now trying to recreate that movement. It’s never a 1:1 compensation cost (one muscle fiber becomes fatigued, one more takes over). It’s typically much greater than that (although the exact amount hasn’t been recorded yet), leaving you feeling nothing but exhausted trying to doing everyday tasks.

2) They lead to greater muscle fatigue.

Not only are compensations typically caused because muscles start to fatigue, but they also lead to more muscle exhaustion. Remember what we just discussed- how the body has to use significantly more energy when using compensating muscles? Well, there is only so much energy to go around (and how much you have left depends on what you’ve eaten, what amount is held in reserves, and what types of activities you’ve already done). Your muscles hold a great deal of energy within each individual cell, but once that has been used, that muscle can’t contract anymore. And depending on how quickly you need the energy (i.e. how soon you will be needing to use your muscle again), your body may not have the time to break down whatever is in its reserves. The only solution, then, is to recruit another set of muscle fibers that still have some energy left. Even if they are not the best ones for the job. And the breakdown process starts all over again.

3) They lead to loss of motor control.

Motor control is essentially how well you can contract the right muscle (and the right segment of that muscle) when creating movement. Do you use the right speed? Do you use the right amount of force, or is it excessive or too little? The more you compensate, and the more you use the incorrect muscles to create a movement, the harder motor control becomes. Why? Because now instead of trying to contract a select few fibers (the few it would have needed to contract had your body been functioning optimally), your brain is having to contract a whole handful, at the same time, even though they all contract and pull on the body at different angles and in different directions. And the more your brain has to try to do at any one time, the sloppier the results are. If you’re not convinced of this, read up on all the latest research on multi-tasking 😉

4) They make relearning optimal movement more difficult.

One of the biggest challenges with compensations is that they are so hard to unlearn. It takes time, commitment, and an experienced hand. And the truth is, most people don’t think compensation is that big of a problem. They continue through their day just as they always have, without putting in any dedicated effort to fix it. Which means they get used to those compensations, so much so that they start to forget about them over time. The compensation becomes the norm. And another truth about the nervous system (just like how it gets sloppy when it has to do too much) is that the more certain neurons and neural pathways are recruited and used, the more engrained those pathways become. What does this mean? The more we forget about the fact that we’re compensating, and don’t do anything to fix it, the more those compensating patterns become habits, which essentially show up as “ruts” in our nervous system. It’s similar to how a river is carved out over time- the longer it follows the same path, the deeper and deeper that path becomes, and the harder it is for the river to change directions. The same is true when it comes to movement: the longer we move a certain way, the harder it is to turn off the neural pathways associated with that compensation so we can begin recruiting the right muscles again.

5) They lead to injury.

I probably don’t have to tell you this one. Considering everything else we’ve already discussed, it likely already makes sense. If you are short on energy, your body’s going to struggle to move quickly when it needs to (when injury is imminent). If your muscles are fatigued, they won’t be able to respond to inputs coming from the nervous system (telling them to contract or relax to avoid injury). If you lack fine motor control over your movements, it’s difficult to adjust course (to prevent an impending injury) in a way that is coordinated and precise- a way that won’t lead to great injury by trying to avoid it in the first place! And if your compensation patterns are so engrained that they prevent you from recruiting and engaging other muscles, having to engage those other muscles again in a split second (because you are falling down the stairs, or because you ended up twisting the wrong way when your foot got stuck, etc.) is often enough to tear the tissues that are overworked simply because they are not used to relaxing/disengaging. Any one of these factors presents a major concern when we consider injury risk, but when it comes to compensation, you’re dealing with all four- at the same time! Which means your risk increases exponentially.

So what can you do?

Talk with a trained professional. This really isn’t one of those things where you’ll be able to figure out how to solve your problem on your own. It takes a trained eye to know what is truly compensation, and what is not. What needs to be disengaged vs. what needs to be re-engaged. And the chances of you injuring yourself trying to fix the problem are very high. Be kind to your body and don’t put it off anymore. Your muscles, your brain, your body- YOU deserve it!

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